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The Week In Russia: A Parallel Universe


Russian President Vladimir Putin (right) and Belarus's Alyaksandr Lukashenka in Sochi on February 22. Putin may be employing Minsk's diversion of a Ryanair jet and the arrests of blogger Raman Pratesevich and his girlfriend as a litmus test of Western unity and resolve.

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A persistent crackdown makes a grim backdrop for talk of freedom and democracy, and the Kremlin puts on a straight face to defend Alyaksandr Lukashenka by suggesting there was nothing suspicious about the diversion of a passenger jet to Minsk, where authorities arrested a blogger and critic of the Belarusian strongman along with his girlfriend.

Here are some of the key developments in Russia over the past week and some of the takeaways going forward.

'Last Island'

In the very beginning of Soviet-era author Venyamin Yerofeyev’s classic Moscow-Petushki, the alcohol-soaked protagonist recounts crossing Moscow a thousand times -- “drunk or hungover…north to south, west to east, end to end, and at random” -- without ever seeing the Kremlin.

This week, anyone hearing some of the remarks from members of President Vladimir Putin’s ruling apparatus might be excused for thinking of this possible explanation: It’s in a parallel universe, a place set apart from the reality of this world.

On May 25, Kremlin ally and State Duma speaker Vyacheslav Volodin asserted that Russia is “the last island of democracy and freedom.”

The next day, the State Duma, Russia’s lower parliament house, passed a bill that would ban supporters and members of groups deemed “extremist” from being elected to any local, regional, or national post -- legislation widely seen as tailored to target associates and supporters of Aleksei Navalny, the jailed Kremlin opponent whose organizations in Moscow and across the country may be ruled extremist by the courts in the coming weeks.

Vyacheslav Volodin, the speaker of parliament's lower chamber, the State Duma, called Russia “the last island of democracy and freedom.”
Vyacheslav Volodin, the speaker of parliament's lower chamber, the State Duma, called Russia “the last island of democracy and freedom.”

That same day, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Russia saw “no reason not to trust” the accuracy of the Belarusian state’s account of a May 23 incident in which a passenger jet flying between two European Union countries was diverted to Minsk and a journalist who had fled the country in fear of politically motivated prosecution was arrested on the tarmac.

Belarusian strongman Alyaksandr Lukashenka’s narrative of the incident, which several EU countries denounced as a “state hijacking,” was based in part on an unverified and incomplete cockpit transcript released by Belarusian authorities that one former commercial airline pilot said had “holes in it so big that you could drive an airplane through it.”

'Laughably Implausible'

In an address on May 26 in which he defended the Ryanair jet’s diversion, Lukashenka made several demonstrably false claims.

Another element of his government’s account was a purported e-mailed bomb threat that Lukashenka said led to the plane’s diversion to Minsk. Little evidence has been presented to support this claim and many observers contend that it is, as one journalist put it, “laughably implausible.”

Disconnects between the real world and the one described by state officials are neither limited to Russia, of course, nor new to it. In the Soviet Union, this rift was a palpable and pervasive aspect of daily life, related in numerous jokes and quips, such as, “They pretend to pay us, we pretend to work.”

But the phenomenon may have become more noticeable around 2014, when the Russian government came up with untruthful accounts of events in Ukraine, including Moscow’s seizure of Crimea and the downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 over the war-torn Donbas, which killed all 298 passengers and crew.

MH17 was shot down on its way from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur by a Russian-made Buk missile fired from territory controlled by Moscow-backed separatists.

Dutch prosecutors say the missile was fired by separatist fighters who had acquired it from a Russian military base near the Ukrainian border, findings that have been corroborated or supported by evidence gathered by journalists and independent investigators.

Three Russians and a Ukrainian are being tried in absentia in the Netherlands on 298 counts of murder. Prosecutors are set to make opening statements on June 7, after the court in November rejected a defense request for more time to investigate alternative theories of the crash -- several of which have been put forward by Russian officials and widely debunked.

Fact Check Reveals False Claims In Lukashenka's Speech On Ryanair Interception
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The incident in the air over Belarus on May 23 has also caused severe tension. Many observers suspect Russia gave its consent, at least, for the diversion of the Athens-Vilnius flight, and while Moscow has not weighed in actively on the matter, it has backed Lukashenka by saying that Belarus did not appear to have done anything wrong.

Belarusian opposition figures and Western governments say the authorities diverted the plane to Minsk under false pretenses, endangering its passengers and crew and setting a frightening precedent, in order to deliver Raman Pratasevich, the former editor in chief of a Telegram channel that has documented the protests and crackdown, into Lukashenka's hands.

Pratasevich’s Russian girlfriend, Sofia Sapega, was also detained after the plane landed, and faces up to 12 years in prison on what rights groups say are politically motived criminal charges. Both Pratasevich and Sapega have been filmed by Belarusian authorities making confession-like statements that Lukashenka’s critics and Western officials say appear to have been delivered under duress.

While Russia has voiced outrage when U.S. officials engineer the arrests of Russia suspects in third countries, such as arm dealer Viktor Bout, it has put no public pressure on Lukashenka over Sapega’s arrest.

Test Of Resolve?

Whatever Russia’s level of involvement, Putin may be employing the Ryanair jet’s diversion and the arrests of the couple as a litmus test of Western unity and resolve in the face of such actions, closely watching reactions to determine where red lines lie for the EU and the United States.

A few days earlier, Putin issued the latest in a series of warnings to the West not to cross Russia’s own red lines, which he has not delineated clearly -- this time using schoolyard rhetoric he has frequently turned to when he wants to talk tough.

“Everybody wants to bite us somewhere or bite a piece off of us, but they should know -- those who intend to do so -- that we’ll knock the teeth out of all of them,” Putin said on May 20.

He also evoked a myth that Russian authorities have gotten a lot of mileage out of over the years: the notion that former U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright once said Russia doesn’t deserve to possess the mineral riches of Siberia.

Domestically, the Kremlin may be using the Ryanair incident for its own ends as well, including sending a warning signal to domestic opponents -- and pretty much all Russians around the ages of Pratasevich, 26, and Sapega, 23 -- that it is pointless and very dangerous to challenge the state.

There have been plenty of signals like that already this year -- and this past week produced still more.

On May 22, police broke up a gathering of independent local lawmakers from 30 Russian regions in the city of Novgorod, citing coronavirus restrictions limiting the number of people allowed to congregate in one place -- a rule that participants said was only violated when police rushed in.

'Undesirable'

On May 27, a pro-democracy movement founded by exiled former oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky said it was shuttering its operations in Russia amid growing “harassment” from the state, including office searches last week.

Open Russia cited pending changes in legislation on so-called “undesirable organizations” that it said would allow the authorities to imprison anyone who works with the group, which is also known as Otkrytka.

Ahead of elections to the State Duma expected in September, “the Kremlin has thrown all its forces into an effort to clear the political field,” it said on Twitter. “Any structures that are not under the presidential administration’s control are burned out with napalm.”

Members will continue to support independent politicians and provide legal aid to “victims of the lawlessness of those in power,” it added, saying: “We will not be broken.”

Some efforts to skew reality seem to be unleashed with a single remark, such as Volodin’s “island of democracy and freedom” claim, while others take substantially more time and effort.

An RFE/RL investigation found this week that a network of Russian marketing companies known for selling dubious nutritional supplements and pushing malware is behind a disinformation campaign to denigrate Western coronavirus vaccines.

And critics of an action movie that debuted on Russian TV last week and featuring a group of heroic Russian military trainers sent to the Central African Republic is a bid to whitewash the role of real-life Russian soldiers -- fighters with a private military company believed to be owned by an ally of Putin -- who have been linked with atrocities there.

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    Steve Gutterman

    Steve Gutterman is the editor of the Russia Desk in RFE/RL's Central Newsroom in Prague. He lived and worked in Russia and the former Soviet Union for nearly 20 years between 1989 and 2014, including postings in Moscow with the AP and Reuters. He has also reported from Afghanistan and Pakistan as well as other parts of Asia, Europe, and the United States.

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Some of the key developments in Russia over the past week, and some of the takeaways going forward, by the editor of RFE/RL's Russia Desk, Steve Gutterman.

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